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Careers Café

Grants in your early career


I want to come back to issues for those applying for academic jobs but at this time of year there is an important question to address for those who have cleared that initial hurdle and find themselves facing a whole track of other hurdles.

Do you need to apply for a grant?

This is going to vary a lot by discipline. Most natural scientists cannot do their research without some grant funding. You need a lab, which requires technicians and supplies even if you don’t have a big team of students working for you. Social science and humanities scholars may be able to maintain a very respectable research career without ever securing grant funding, but securing a grant still makes a big difference in what is possible.

From your perspective, grant funding enables a more ambitious research program than you could otherwise undertake. Research is an important aspect of your academic career, so grant funding should be something you expect to do. The question isn’t should you apply for a grant but when should you apply for a grant.

Most grant programs are very competitive. There is no advantage to applying when you aren’t ready. Although most granting councils have provisions for new scholars that recognize their relative lack of previous research experience in the peer review process, you should not apply for external funding unless you have publications and have done the preliminary groundwork for your proposed program of research. Universities provided start-up funds when they hire you so you can establish the foundation of your ongoing program of research and get into a position to be competitive for external funding programs.

You can be thinking about and preparing for a grant application long before the deadline.

Even if you aren’t applying in the next round, sit down and plan your strategy now. Set a goal for when you will apply. Find out as much as you can about the competition. Prioritize your research activities.

Your program of research should be well defined. Do the preliminary research so that you have identified the specific archives you need to work in, or have validated your data collection instruments, or whatever is appropriate to your area and methodology. That preliminary work will also help you clarify the objectives for the next phase of your program, setting out an ambitious but feasible proposal.

The number of publications required to be competitive will vary by discipline. These are competitions. Your publication rate and the quality of the outlets will need to be higher than average for your discipline. Use those first few years to establish a writing habit and start submitting manuscripts.

Seek advice from the Research Office, colleagues in your department and in your scholarly association. There are no guarantees of success. Do your best work. Write your best application. Submit it. Then forget it and get on with your research.

Jo VanEvery is a career coach who specializes in helping academics. Find her at
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